Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Finnish Goddess of the Violin

It's not everyday that I load up my Eurovan and head off to Portland, Oregon to hear a concert. But when I learned that the remarkable Finnish violinist, Elina Vähälä was to perform Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto with Oregon Symphony, I knew to expect an unforgettable musical experience. I haven't been down to Portland for an Oregon Symphony concert since the era of conductor James DePreist, who left an indelible imprint on the orchestra and community.

With two of Ilkka's accomplished students, Rose McIntosh and Alyssa Fridenmaker, I had wonderful company for the three hour trek. We had an appointment for Rose to meet and play for Elina in the afternoon, to discuss a possible enrollment for the Hochschule fur Musik in Detmold, Germany, where she is currently professor of violin. The meeting turned out to be an invaluable lesson spent with Elina, as she shared insight into the concepts of synchronization between the left and right hands of a violinist, and the importance of clarity, articulation, and understanding of each note, particularly in its role and relation within the context of a phrase. As I sat and listened to the exchange between Elina Vähälä and Rose McIntosh, I couldn't help but wish for the Oregon Symphony to present her in a masterclass for young professionals in the near future. This was traditional, old-school teaching and playing at its best, but with a fresh twist, as described by Alyssa Fridenmaker. We left the conference room eager to hear Elina's performance of Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto—a first time hearing for all of us.

After browsing at Powell's Book Store (of course!) and dinner at a Thai Restaurant, we returned to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. I had almost forgotten how much charm this original movie palace has with its ornate Italian Rococo design. The "Schnitz" was packed with an appreciative and enthusiastic audience.

A heart-warming welcome by Oregon Symphony's executive director Elaine Calder, with news of successful fund-raising for the orchestra to make its way to Carnegie Hall in 2011, was followed by an informative and engaging introduction to the rarely performed Britten Violin Concerto by Maestro Carlos Kalmar. The program began with a short work, Magnus Lindberg's "Purcell Variation". This piece felt like a mere curtain raiser, or teaser, to usher in the evening's soloist, Elina Vähälä.

Benjamin Britten, whose political views were very much of the socialist, pacifist, Left of the 1930's, wrote his concerto during 1938/39 as a requiem for the fallen soldiers of the Spanish Civil War, as well as a foreshadowing of World War II. It offers the violinist a sustained, dream-like main theme followed by a starkly contrasting, military quasi-cadenza. The tympani echoes the artillery of the military section. In a gypsy trio section, the intensive solo part is laden with furious, demanding passage work. The concerto concludes with a haunting and deeply spiritual lament. Britten invites the listener to hear and question the suffering of mankind by conveying an almost unspeakable sense of loss with his music. Elina Vähälä, with her incomparable command of the instrument, held the audience spellbound from the first note to the last. Her sound is expansive, varied and rich; she is a fearless violinist. The Oregon Symphony, under Kalmar's direction, accompanied the concerto with sensitivity and emotionalism.

Over the years, I've heard Elina Vähälä perform an assortment of solo repertoire, from Vivaldi to Shnittke, Mozart to Curtis-Curtis Smith, and frequently with her pianist/conductor husband, Ralf Gothóni. Every time I leave the concert hall with a similar impression, that being as if each composer wrote with her in mind.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Art of Possibility

There are many inspiring and meaningful messages from the best-selling book "The Art of Possibility" by Benjamin and Rosamund Zander. This book is a perfect antidote for helping one to survive in an overly competitive world. What's more, Benjamin Zander is Music Director for the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. His techniques for experiencing a more purposeful and fulfilled life are gleaned from the vantage point of the conductor's podium. During his classes at the New England Conservatory, Mr. Zander encourages his students to place themselves in the future, and discuss their accomplishments in the past tense. This enables each student to feel as if they have mastered their goals and overcome fears. He has trained his students to lift their arms in the air, smile, and say "How fascinating!" after making mistakes. Mr. Zander teaches the art of risk-taking through music.

But what I especially love in "The Art of Possibility" is the game called "I Am a Contribution." In this game, you wake up each day and bask in the notion that you are a gift to others.It is a discipline of the spirit.

Today, as I attended the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra's final performance of the season "The Brotherhood of Peoples" at Meany Hall, I was struck by the energy and vitality that this wonderful group displays under the leadership of Maestro Adam Stern, and the spirit of contribution by each member of the orchestra. To a near capacity house, the concert began with Elgar's "Introduction and Allegro", a most challenging work for strings. The Elgar offered the principal strings ample solo opportunities as a string quartet, and they rose to the occasion. Next on the program was the Concertino for Flute and Orchestra by Otar Gordeli. Simon Berry, the 2009 Bushell Concerto Competition Winner and senior at Roosevelt High School, performed this jazz-infused work with complete mastery and poise. Bartok's "Dance Suite" rounded out the first half with peasant melodies from Magyar and Romanian folk traditions and hints of Arabic styling.

The program concluded with Beethoven's Second Symphony. One could quibble about technical imperfections. In today's world, mainly through the miracles of technology, we've grown accustomed to an almost sterile, antiseptic performance manner where, to quote Zander, "the voice of the soul is literally interrupted." How joyful it was for me to hear music played with such warmth and expressiveness; the art of possibility at its best.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

For Peanuts, You Get Monkeys

I'll admit, when I read this article about Pasadena Symphony's financial woes, and Jorge Mester's refusal to take a pay cut for his salary of about $235,000 for roughly five concerts a year, I was taken aback by former board member, Jerry Kohl's comment: "They can find someone cheaper, but not somebody world-class like Mester. For peanuts, you get monkeys."

What a pitiful statement exposing a false mindset, especially in this country of ours. Today, when it comes to conductors and musicians, there's an embarrassment of riches, and short supply of opportunities. As I've said before, there are crops of talented artists going to waste here with employment opportunities diminishing. But this conviction, that only by offering an exorbitant salary to a conductor will an orchestra be transformed, as if by a Messiah, really grates on my nerves. I've worked with a number of talented musicians who are less well-known but stellar. One such young conductor who comes to mind is Darko Butorac, music director of Missoula Symphony Orchestra. His recent performances as guest conductor with Rainier Symphony and the Northwest Mahler Festival brought musicians practically to their knees, pleading for more opportunities to work with him. The level of intensity and inspiration Butorac drew from players was proof that skill level must not necessarily be equated with the all mighty pay check; fresh talent must be given a chance.

Which brings me back to this peanuts and monkeys philosophy. By this time, my small circle of readers know how much I love story-telling. Well, here's one. It appears to be teacher shopping time for many youngsters in Seattle. I've had a number of calls and e-mails from prospective violin students. Being a parent myself, and knowing that many families are struggling with finances, I keep my tuition to a rate that offers peace of mind, and let it be stated here, that I do not accept commissions for the sales of violins, as so many others in this town make a habit of doing. In other words, I can rest at night without feeling that I'm gouging students and their parents, as many colleges do when they raise their rates to appear more prestigious, while basically admitting anyone who can cough up the cash.

Perception of teaching ability is often mistakenly equated with tuition fee.  A non-musician father, while accompanying his daughter for an introductory lesson recently, asked me after the lesson for the amount owed. I stated my hourly rate. He looked at me dubiously. "That's all you charge? But, I thought you quoted a higher fee. Oh, I guess that was someone else—" I knew right then and there that his young daughter would be studying elsewhere, at a pricier studio, with one who is not lacking for greed, but perhaps for dedication and expertise.

After receiving a letter of rejection a few days after the lesson, I scratched behind the ears, climbed to the kitchen, and luckily, found a bag of peanuts.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

School for Scandals

"How did you get to be so creative?" asks my husband after reading the first installments of Frantic.

Here's my secret: I learned from the best of them. We had quite an education thirty years ago as members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Not only was there a vast selection of repertoire to be played, everything from Mozart to Lazarof,  Bach to Bill Conti, but a rich supply of characters to make life interesting. Cupid slung her arrow at us, and we caused quite a stir. Our being together was a no-no and nobody expected us to last. But look at us now, thirty years later—

My husband and I take a stroll down memory lane.

The LACO was a 35-40 piece ensemble which played together on the average of one or two weeks out of the month. We performed regularly at Ambassador College in Pasadena, but also on campus at UCLA, and Claremont College. The orchestra gave run-outs in Palm Springs, El Cajon and Santa Barbara.The bus rides were especially memorable, as they afforded an opportunity for adolescent behavior.

The majority of players were comprised of many of LA's top studio musicians, including concertmaster Paul Shure, and his wife from Seattle, Bonnie Jean Douglas. After being hired at the age of 19, I sat last chair second violins, but was soon offered deliverance into the firsts, and promoted as soloist to appear with oboist Allan Vogel in J.S. Bach's Double Concerto. In those days, I played on a Carl Becker violin that caused grumblings from the first desk players; the violin sounded like a trumpet, and caused my playing to stick out rather than blend. Mean glares from those around me induced me to tears. Now I can laugh; this is memoir material.

There was a certain charm in being part of such a small musical family. Everyone knew everyone's business, and there was nothing more tempting and delicious than to help stir the pot. When one violinist claimed that her head was expanding in size due to a medical condition, we giggled in the bus, while making secret bets whether or not her head might explode. It was our great fortune that we had sympathetic bus drivers. They'd allow  the musicians to smoke weed in the back, and make frequent pit stops for beer. And, of course, there were liaisons; romantic interludes. I was so naive back then. I thought the whole concept of wife-swapping began in LACO. Remember the time we went on the 1980 Winter Olympics tour to Lake Placid and New York City?

The conductor, a ladies man, seemed like a decent guy back then. But then, appearances can be deceiving. Hormones fired up those concerts all right, and  it was truly a school for scandals.
In this photo in 1980 Margaret Moore, Gerard Schwarz, me and Jennifer (Woodward) Munday

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day

It's been interesting to check in with a few of my characters for Frantic. Since I've lost touch with a number of colleagues from the East Coast and Los Angeles over the years, we've had some catching up to do. "What happened to you?" "Where have you been?" "Were you disappeared?" "But Schwarz is gone now, right?" And I remind my interrogators that 2011 is just around the corner. When the curtain lowers after the final act in a year, hopefully the curtain will raise to a new scene. But in the meantime, I try to answer the what, where and why questions with tact and good humor. But, in reality, I know that none of my characters have had their careers turned upside down.

It is not the end of the world to be discriminated against, though, because one has the potential to rediscover oneself. The ability to transform obstacles into opportunities might be empowering, even exhilarating. At least they are for me.

I'm ever so fortunate to be married to a person who is not easily intimidated. I believe a man displays inner security when he surrounds himself with strong, determined women. Now, in my fifties, I have observed that many males prefer the docile, demure type. That's not the case around our house, and for that, I'm grateful. Our daughters, Anna and Sarah, have been encouraged to think and speak for themselves. They are not confined to the boxes of their peers, and I'm proud of them.

Speaking of powerful women, I enjoyed reading the Chicago Tribune's recent article "How Deborah Rutter reeled in a classical music superstar"  about her sealing the deal for Chicago Symphony with Riccardo Muti. Back in the early 80's when I played as an extra for Los Angeles Philharmonic, I remember Deborah Rutter alongside Ernest Fleischmann. He had spotted her uncanny ability and talent for leadership already back then, and took her under his wing. She went on to become executive director of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

Of course, Deborah (Card) Rutter is remembered and praised for her transformational abilities. A step in the ladder to her dizzying success in orchestra leadership was her stint as executive director of Seattle Symphony from 1992. It was then that the local band grew by leaps and bounds. She helped to revitalize the downtown arts scene with the building of Benaroya Hall in 1998. It might be food for thought that during the 25 plus years of Schwarz leadership, the Seattle Symphony has gone through, what, around ten executive directors? As for Rutter's comparison of Seattle to Chicago: "The air is a lot thinner up here, performing at this absolute pinnacle, which is really exciting because you have fantastic people come here, and you expect fantastic people to come here."

Muti says of Deborah Rutter: "The first important thing about Deborah is that she loves music. She's a woman of great personality, and at the same time, can be strong, and after one second, also charming. She can be deep, and at the same time have a great sense of humor that is very important in life."

All right. I'll make a toast: Here's to Mother's Day, and to all those women who refuse to be mice to men.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Evolving Icon

As I search for lost time in Frantic: the Memoir, I'm brought back to the years as a youngster growing up in the Boston area in the 60s and 70s. A highlight for me were Sunday afternoon concerts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and of course, evening performances of the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops at Symphony Hall. It was through those experiences that I came to love music. The Pops reached out to all age groups, and made any performance an event not to be missed. To read how the Pops in its 125th season, is facing a decline in ticket sales, and looking for a way to evolve, as are the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh Symphony Pops, sadly reflects the current issues facing all arts organizations today.

Mark Volpe, managing director who oversees the Pops, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Tanglewood, blames the struggles largely on the economy. But there are reasons beyond the economy for the decline. In the golden era of the Pops there was no Internet or cable TV to compete with. The orchestra could expect a core audience, no matter who was headlining the show. When the organization recently added "Pops on the Edge" a rock-themed programming, which brought rockers My Morning Jacket, Cowboy Junkies, and Guster, they alienated the older crowd. It's like damned if you do, and damned if you don't.
 "This is not your grandmother's Boston Pops," says Tony Beadle, who managed the organization from 1999-2006.

When I grew up, Arthur Fiedler was the legendary conductor of the Boston Pops. He turned the orchestra into the most popular symphony in the world, and advertised himself as a people's maestro. The Pops barely marketed but had an automatic audience, always. Arthur Fiedler turned another of his dreams into reality when he created open-air summer symphony concerts, free to the public, known as the Esplanade Concerts.

It's interesting and scary to be a classical artist of this time period, knowing that even the lighter concert series are suffering from lack of audience support and interest. Many of my colleagues seem distressed at the thought of their own children pursuing music as a career. What does the future hold? Will ticket sales go forward when the economy rebounds? And how should organizations market to the younger crowd while retaining older subsribers? The answers to these questions are anybody's guess.

I think some of the most prophetic words were spoken in 1974 by Harry Ellis Dickson, longtime associate conductor of the Boston Pops, in his revised book, "Gentlemen, More Dolce Please!" (Incidentally, Dickson plays a prominent role in my memoir, Frantic. I well remember how he was revered in the community for his wit and candor). As I leaf through Harry Ellis Dickson's books for second and third readings, I find them relevant for today:

"By the year 2000 all of us will probably have become so sophisticated and so saturated with music that all emotion will have been drained out of our systems. Concert-going will be an exercise in brain-function, nothing more. Perhaps it will afford a kind of satisfaction we don't quite understand today, but I'm glad I won't be around to "enjoy" it...
In the future we will continue to hurl invective at everything new and unfamiliar as we have done since before Beethoven's time. The good will remain, in whatever form, and the bad will be discarded in spite of ourselves."